I didn’t go to the Chinese province of Gansu looking for a story — it was supposed to be a holiday. The Tibetan town of Xiahe where I stayed made a deep impression on me, partly due to its air of profound religiosity, its stunning natural surrounds and crystal clear skies. Less expected was the large armed troop and police presence that made the isolated town feel like a settlement under siege.
Traditionally the province of Gansu marked the limit of imperial Chinese rule, where the Great Wall ends its long journey from the east coast. Today the province sits at the geographic centre of the People’s Republic, though many Chinese still tellingly refer to it as "West China". It remains an ethnic and cultural crossroads, where Han Chinese dominance begins to wane as the country merges into the vast expanses of Xinjiang to the west (home to the Muslim Uyghurs) and the Tibetan areas to the south. The southwest once formed the edge of Amdo, a Tibetan region still claimed by the Dalai Lama’s "government in exile". This area remains culturally and ethnically Tibetan to this day.
My trip took me to Xiahe, a small town in Gansu’s Tibetan region that is home to one of the country’s most important Tibetan monasteries. Xiahe suffered several days of protests and violence in March last year as deadly race riots flared in the Tibetan capital Lhasa. As elsewhere, symbols of Chinese rule and Han businesses were targeted, with the local Government office and police station attacked, and the windows of Chinese-owned shops smashed.
I was surprised at the extent to which the fallout from these events was still evident in Xiahe 18 months later. When we entered Gansu’s Tibetan region, over five hours drive from the provincial capital of Lanzhou and around 3000 metres above sea level, our car was stopped at a police roadblock. This was merely a county line, the kind of border a casual traveller wouldn’t even notice elsewhere in China. Yet here it felt more like a national frontier. All Chinese citizens had their identity cards checked, while I was asked to step out of our vehicle to have my passport and visa details recorded.
When we reached Xiahe a short time later, a heavy military presence was immediately obvious. The only road through the town was guarded at both ends by armed troops, with soldiers at the main approach watching passing cars from behind a metal screen. An archway of cameras at each end of the town photographed every vehicle entering and leaving the area.
In Xiahe itself, military trucks were lined up beside the police station. The local Government office was set back from the street, but from our neighbouring hotel we could see the building was guarded by armed troops dressed in body armour, clutching full-length riot shields. Police cars were parked at regular junctions along Xiahe’s main road, while other vehicles patrolled the town. That night as I returned from a restaurant to my hotel I noticed parked cars full of uniformed officers roughly every 30 metres.
The old section of Xiahe is a rabbit warren of narrow dirt lanes lined by earthen courtyard houses accessed via heavy timber doors. At the far end of the settlement sits Labrang Monastery, nestled in the shadow of the surrounding peaks. Once home to thousands of monks, these days the Government restricts numbers, as in all Chinese monasteries. The complex’s dark, cavernous halls reinforced the town’s medieval ambience.
But it’s not just the heavy police and military presence that emphasises the profound differences that exist between these people and the Han Chinese areas further east. Trudging alongside elderly Tibetans bent double and young women prostrating on the dusty earth, with every step around Xiahe’s "kora" — the three-kilometre pilgrim path circling the town — it was easy to see how alien Tibetan culture must seem to most Han people. Even to a foreigner like myself, likely to miss differences between apparently similar cultures, entering Xiahe felt like stepping out of China and into another country. My wife grew up in nearby Lanzhou, yet the town was as eye-opening for her as it was for me. Both of us had difficulty communicating with some older locals who spoke only rudimentary Mandarin. Even the Tibetan dialect here is quite different to that spoken in Lhasa.
Language, however, is the least of the cultural differences. For many Han Chinese, living in a rapidly modernising, atheistic and brazenly materialistic culture, the apparent desire of a lot of Tibetans to cling to pre-modern theocratic social structures and religious beliefs is simply incomprehensible. Equally puzzling is the widespread resentment of the modern trappings Chinese rule has brought to Tibet. An article issued by China’s state press following the riots last year contained a quote from a shopkeeper in a nearby town that sums up the attitude of many: "I have been doing business in Maqu for 20 years and witnessed the development of the county. Tibetan herdsmen now have tap water and electricity, and roads are built to their houses. It is a time to enjoy life, and I can’t understand why someone would ruin it."
As a non-religious person, I found the unquestioning faith and theocratic hierarchies evident in Xiahe both fascinating and disturbing. The socio-economic gap between here and even local urban centres like Lanzhou was also obvious, though this could be said of most of rural China. But while Xiahe’s pre-modern way of life was confronting, the culture clash evident in the town made it clear that a development model that makes only tokenistic allowances for cultural differences is unlikely to win the hearts ands minds of Tibetans — especially if it’s imposed at the end of a gun. At best, the military and police presence felt like an occupying peacekeeping force. Watching the large numbers of Han tourists snapping away at the monks and pilgrims like they were in a foreign land, there were times I felt like Xiahe had been reduced to a touristic zoo, with the People’s Liberation Army as its keepers.
Driving out of Xiahe past the troops and the roadblocks, I reflected on the way that movement between different groups and certain areas in China is closely monitored and the terms of interaction circumscribed by authorities. Socially, politically, and religiously, minorities are permitted no voice that does not conform to central Government views.
Meanwhile censorship, Government control of the education system and preferential policies for the cities mean east-coast urbanites are largely kept in the dark about the ethnic tensions that plague large parts of the country. There’s little to no coverage in the state press of the ongoing military presence in places like Xiahe.
The net result is a society made up of groups who know very little about each other. When last year’s riots occurred in Lhasa, many locals I know in Beijing were profoundly shocked and claimed to be completely ignorant of tensions in Tibetan areas. Similar reactions greeted this year’s race riots in Xinjiang, which appear to have left the Muslim province even more deeply divided than Tibetan areas. Denial of deep-seated problems and heavy-handed policing may create a facade of "harmony" (to use current Government parlance), but if a small town like Xiahe requires armed troops and a massive police presence to keep tensions in check, the long-term sustainability of this approach doesn’t look promising.
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